Reich: Out of the Cabinet, into the Theater

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich has written a play now making its debut on Cape Cod. In Public Exposure, the Clinton administration Democrat takes some roundhouse swings at the political right.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, the anti-Tiny Tim.

But first, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has written a play. Now given his career as a politician, a member of the Clinton administration, a commentator, scholar and author, it's perhaps not surprising that the piece is called "Public Exposure." The title has a double meaning. Mr. Reich's play is political satire. He even describes it as `theater of the absurd.' And as Andrea Shea reports, it's also kind of naughty.

ANDREA SHEA reporting:

Robert Reich's wife knows a thing or two about theater. She's adapted the writing of Virginia Woolf for the stage and even portrayed the author. This is how she described her husband's mainstream theatrical debut.

Mr. ROBERT REICH (Writer of "Public Exposure"): `Vulgar, tasteless and disgusting, but also hilarious.'

SHEA: That could depend on your political bent. Robert Reich's main character is a talk show host.

Mr. REICH: He happens to be a right-wing talk show host--most talk show hosts are right-wing these days--who prattles on daily about decadence and perversity in America, and he's convinced by a political consultant who appears on his show regularly--who also happens to be his ex-lover--to run for president.

(Soundbite of "Public Exposure")

Unidentified Actor #1: (As Bill) I'm a performer.

Unidentified Actress: Exactly. What do you think Ronald Reagan was? Arnold Schwarzenegger? They perform the roles of tough guy. That's what America wants, Bill. They want a man who can act the role of a mean (censored) and whip this nation into shape, a man who tells it like it is, with nothing to hide, who will fight against the evil and the decadence all around us, a man's man, a man of war, a he-man. Man, oh, man. They want you, Bill!

Unidentified Actor #1: (As Bill) The public knows my face. They don't know all of me.

SHEA: Some do. You see, this is the story of a conservative broadcaster who exposes the decadence and perversity of Hollywood and the liberal media on the air, but then exposes himself in public. It might seem like a cheap shot at the other side of the aisle from a former member of the Clinton Cabinet, but Reich insists he doesn't have an agenda.

Mr. REICH: Well, let me just say, this is not a mean-spirited play. This isn't a political satire that's skewers. You know, these characters sort of took over. It wasn't as if I carefully, strategically thought in advance, `Well, what's the tactical and strategic advantage of doing it this way or this way?' No. I mean, these people, these four characters--I created them, and then they told me what they wanted to do. And, frankly, I was a little appalled.

SHEA: Though not enough to keep him from finishing the play in a matter of weeks. Then Reich shamelessly e-mailed the script to an acquaintance who happens to be the artistic director of a theater company on Cape Cod, where Reich has a house.

Mr. JEFF ZINN (Artistic Director, Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater): I don't know what I expected. I just didn't expect a good play because they're so few and far between, anyway--I mean, even from playwrights.

SHEA: Jeff Zinn runs Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. It's not your typical summer-stock venue. Wellfleet is credited with bringing edgy, contemporary theater to the Cape and attracts actors, directors and playwrights from New York, Boston and beyond each summer.

Mr. ZINN: I get these kinds of things all the time, and I wasn't really expecting that much because, you know, academic-turns-playwright--it's like, OK, well, you know, nice try, you know. But I was drawn right into it. It--the set-up was very interesting. And then it just got crazier and crazier and crazier.

SHEA: Zinn tested "Public Exposure" at a staged reading in March where Virginia Treherne-Thomas, a critic for TheaterNewEngland.com, saw the piece for the first time.

Ms. VIRGINIA TREHERNE-THOMAS (Critic, TheaterNewEngland.com): I don't usually laugh at that stuff, but I laughed from beginning to end. It's so well-written. It's formulated well. It's amusing. The characters are well-defined.

SHEA: Treherne-Thomas acknowledges that many people will buy tickets just because the play is by Robert Reich.

Ms. TREHERNE-THOMAS: That's showbiz. I mean, you know, celebrities sell tickets, and he is a celebrity. What the hell? If anybody can write like he can, go for it. And I think that maybe he's just a little bored of writing, you know, non-fiction books for students and for the intellectuals.

SHEA: Despite being staged in liberal Massachusetts, where Robert Reich just might be preaching to the choir, his play still managed to raise eyebrows, says Wellfleet's Jeff Zinn.

Mr. ZINN: There was a little bit of hand-wringing, like, are we gonna convince the red staters, you know, with this play? This is very much a liberal worry. And my reaction to that is, `Who cares?' This is my soapbox. This theater is a platform. The conservatives and the right wing, they have talk radio. We have the theater.

SHEA: Talk radio has a bigger audience. Even Reich's other endeavors likely bring him more exposure, yet he remains drawn to the theater. In fact, "Public Exposure" isn't Reich's first play. He wrote two others when he was a student at Dartmouth College.

Mr. REICH: `I met her only yesterday in the 86th Street sewer.'

SHEA: And...

Mr. REICH: `When the moon shines over the garbage pits in Peoria, Illinois.'

SHEA: Those plays went nowhere, but today Reich says the dramatic form allows him to express ideas he just can't anywhere else. And while he says "Public Exposure" is about America's obsession with appearance and how the media feeds into that, Reich insists the play is just supposed to be funny.

Mr. REICH: I'm not trying to say anything, necessarily, or communicate a deep message to the audience. They'll get it. To the extent that there's political satire there, there's not any question about what's being satirized. But it's just good--I was going to say `wholesome'--but it's just good, unwholesome entertainment.

(Soundbite of "Public Exposure")

Unidentified Actor #1: (As Bill) Why would I want to run for president? Five million people watch me every night.

Unidentified Actor #2: Ready, three, two, one!

Unidentified Actor #1: (As Bill) Add more naked truth and your letters after this message. Don't go away.

Unidentified Actor #2: Two minutes.

Unidentified Actor #1: (As Bill) Six million hear me on the radio every day. You know how many copies of "Liberal Fakes and Whores" I've sold? Eighteen million so far. Why would I want to give this up?

Unidentified Actress: I guarantee you it's a no-lose proposition. You run and lose, you're even bigger. You win, and you run America.

SHEA: Robert Reich's play, "Public Exposure," might not play in Peoria, but it's running at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater through June 18th. For NPR News, this is Andrea Shea.

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